The gay plague. The judgement of God. The AIDS epidemic erupted in the early eighties and was cited in some quarters as an inevitable consequence of sixties' liberalism. It led to a virulent climate of homophobia, with homosexuality reviled as unnatural, an illness that needed to be cured. Throughout this debut album by The Smiths, Morrissey delineates this sense of being a social pariah, with lines such as “Am I still ill?” (Still Ill
); “I’m feeling very sick and ill tonight” (What Difference Does It Make
); “Will nature make a man of me yet?” (This Charming Man
); and “Nature played this trick on me” (Pretty Girls Make Graves
). A number of songs go even further than this, insinuating an explicit connection between sex and death, such as Pretty Girls Make Graves
, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle
and Suffer Little Children
The album starts with the words “It is time the tale were told/ of how you took a child/ and made him old” (Reel Around The Fountain
) and closes with Suffer Little Children
, a harrowing song about the notorious Moors Murders. These occurred during Morrissey’s early childhood in his home town; he was a potential victim. There is no getting away from the fact that child abuse, or rather the loss of innocence, is never far from the agenda in these songs.
In this new world of AIDS, to have a sexual encounter is to play a form of Russian roulette. But this only serves to make the lure of sex even more attractive. Reel Around The Fountain
(a gay synonym for oral sex) sees Morrissey confessing “you can pin and mount me/ like a butterfly”. Casual encounters with strangers (This Charming Man
), gay confessions (What Difference Does It Make
) and rent boys (I Don’t Owe You Anything
) might indicate an embrace of sordid squalor. In fact there is nothing of the sort. Instead one senses an almost puritan morality at work here. Innocence is idealised, not lusted after. Take these lines from Pretty Girls Make Graves
: “she wants it now/ she will not wait/ but she’s too rough and I’m too delicate/ and on the sand/another man takes her hand/ a smile lights up her stupid face and well it would/ I’ve lost my faith in womanhood.”
Musically too, there is a sense of hailing back to a more innocent time. Marr’s retro jangling guitars recall sixties' bands like The Byrds and early Rolling Stones, at a time when even rock music (such as Van Halen and Europe) was embracing synthesisers. The songs often disdain conventional verse and chorus structure, such as the meandering in You've Got Everything Now
or the stream of consciousness accompaniment of the shimmering The Hand That Rocks The Cradle
. But never have guitars sounded so damn catchy, such as the classic power riffs in What Difference Does It Make
or the downright funky bass lines in This Charming Man
and Pretty Girls Make Graves
. Marr even throws in some Dylan-esque harmonica (Hand in Glove
) to complete the sixties' revival ambience.
Big questions are forever being posed in these lyrics about life and death, such as “does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?” (Still Ill
). A debate that bedevilled renaissance philosophers like Berkeley might seem far too grandiose and cerebral for pop music to deal with, but is thrown into sardonic relief by Morrissey’s throwaway reply of “I dunno!” This is emblematic of the album as a whole. Morrissey might be stealing ideas and words left, right and centre (Shelagh Delaney, James Joyce, William Blake, Jack Kerouac), but they are packaged with such wit and conviction that he can get away with it.
Forget the blathering about the production issues on this rather dark and gothic album. All I hear is a collection of standout songs, in contrast to the fifties' rockabilly of “Meat Is Murder”, the pop of “The Queen Is Dead” or the rock of “Strangeways Here We Come”. Dripping with poetical literacy, insouciant irony and of course tormented angst, this album (along with REM’s “Murmur”) practically invented a whole new music movement (indie) and the influence of Morrissey’s kitchen sink drama lyrics can still be felt in more recent music movements such as post-hardcore and emo.